June 21 – Niketas of Nisyros; Aloysius Gonzaga

Niketas of Nisyros (1716–1732) was the son of the governor of Nisyros, which was all well and good until Dad got into trouble with the Turks. To prevent tragedy, the whole family converted to Islam and moved to Rhodes, Niketas becoming Mehmet. At fourteen he learned the horrid truth and, distraught, fled to Chios (about 100 miles NW). He told the whole story to the abbot of the Nea Moni monastery, who sent him to the retired Bishop of Thebes, who anointed him with the Holy Chrism. The monks in Thebes gave him prayers, blessings, advice, and a four-color pamphlet on martyrdom (by way of foreshadowing).

He went back to Chios and was immediately nabbed by an official collecting the head tax. As he had no money, he was hauled off to jail. Along the way a priest recognized him and said, “Hey, Mehmet!” (One imagines Niketas mouthing the Greek equivalent of “ixnay!”) Suspicious, the official ferreted out the family story (no secrets on a small Aegean island), and led him to the Aga (military commander). Nikitas confessed his faith boldly; the Turks entreated him to reconvert to Islam. Their arguments went from verbal to physical, and after ten days of torture, he was beheaded. He is the patron of Nisyros, where his feast is still celebrated annually on, well, on June 21.

Aloysius Gonzaga (1568–1591) (aka Luigi) was the eldest son of Ferrante Gonzaga, the Marquis of Castiglione, who served Philip II of Spain and was a compulsive gambler (I merely pass these facts on; I make no judgments). Ferrante wanted more than anything else for little Luigi to become a great captain, so at age four Luigi was sent to a military training camp, where he learned to march (or “strut” as one source puts it), set off a canon without authorization, and picked up a lot of “strange oaths” he regretted learning for the rest of his life (his mother wasn’t terribly pleased about them either). Nevertheless he was also a spiritual lad, and at age seven determined to pursue a religious vocation.

At age eight, while fostered with his brother Rodolfo in Florence, he came down with a kidney ailment and spent much time in bed, praying and reading the lives of the saints. Back home, he read a book about Jesuit missionaries, and determined to become one himself. He practiced on his peers by giving them catechism classes (we’re not told how the friends took this). Next he and Rodolfo were made pages to Infante* Diego, but when Diego died, they returned once more to Castiglione. When Luigi informed his parents of his intention to join the Society of Jesus, Mom was good with it, but Dad went through the Five Stages of Losing a Son to the Jesuits, making Luigi’s life unpleasant (for unpleasant values of “unpleasant”) until he finally got to the final one, “Acceptance.”

At eighteen, Luigi ceded the succession to his brother Rodolfo and joined the Jesuits in Rome. He was sent to study in Milan, and returned to Rome just as the plague hit. He was professed, and went to work in the house’s hospital. There the former nobleman washed and instructed patients, made beds, and did many other humble chores. In short order he got the plague, was given last rites, and was healed of the plague, only to have his kidneys give notice. Although he was very ill, he arose every night (until he could no more), venerated the crucifix and icons in his cell, and prayed, wedged between his bed and the wall to keep from falling.

On the night of his death, he received the viaticum, and asked the priest to recite the prayers for the dead. After that he lay still, occasionally murmuring, “into thy hands,” until at last he said the name “Jesus,” and died. He is the patron saint of AIDS patients and caregivers, of teenagers, and of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington[1].

[1] Go Zags!